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Retirement Account Showdown - How to Choose the Right Option Thumbnail

Retirement Account Showdown - How to Choose the Right Option

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Saving enough to retire comfortably is a key financial goal for most people. With so many account types and investment options now available, determining the ideal places to put your money can feel overwhelming.

Should you open an IRA or contribute to your employer's 401k? What about newer accounts like Roth 401ks? If you receive an inheritance or sell investment property, where should you park those funds - retirement or non-retirement accounts?

I’ll compare features like tax deductions, contribution limits, withdrawal rules, investment flexibility, required minimum distributions, and more. You’ll learn the pros and cons of each account along with the ideal life stages and situations for which each works best.

My goal is to equip you with a comprehensive understanding so you can make fully-informed decisions. I’ll tackle frequently asked questions and provide key takeaways to apply towards building your own optimal retirement investing strategy.

Whether retirement feels far away or is quickly approaching, the actions you take today – choosing the right savings vehicles and maximizing contributions – will play a huge role in determining your financial freedom and lifestyle in your later non-working years.

Let’s get started learning how to make your money work hardest when it comes to funding a satisfying, meaningful retirement!

Key Takeaways

  • Maximize 401k & similar employer plan contributions to benefit from matches, tax savings & easy investing.
  • Supplement with IRAs like Roth & Traditional accounts to expand tax-advantaged retirement savings.    
  • Consolidate old workplace plan balances via Rollover IRAs for simplified oversight. 
  • Self-employed can utilize Solo 401k, SEP & SIMPLE IRAs to maximize tax-deferred savings.
  • Balance pre-tax and Roth accounts based on current vs future expected tax rates.  
  • Taxable investments can supplement retirement accounts once contribution limits are reached.
  • Revisit your account mix over time as income, career stage, family, & taxes evolve.

Key Factors That Impact Retirement Account Selection

Before diving into the tax, legal, and operational details of various retirement accounts, it’s important to understand the key factors that should guide your decision-making:

Income Level and Tax Bracket – Higher income earners often benefit more from certain accounts like 401ks and Traditional IRAs due to higher tax savings. A doctor making $400k per year saving the max in a 401k would shield more current income dollars from taxes than someone earning $40k.

Marginal vs. Effective Tax Rate – As income rises, additional dollars fall into higher brackets (marginal rate). But other dollars are still taxed at lower rates (effective rate) which is why whole income isn't taxed the highest bracket amount. Pre-tax contributions lower your income so more total dollars remain in those lower tax brackets.

Expected Future Tax Rate – Compare your current marginal and effective tax rates to projections for retirement. Are you expecting taxes to be higher or lower once retired? This impacts if you should save pre-tax or post-tax.

Age and Retirement Time Horizon – Longer time until retirement means savings have more years for tax-deferred compound growth. But early retirees need abundant pre-tax savings to cover withdrawals until age 59 1⁄2 without penalties.

Career Stage and Job Transitions – Access to workplace accounts depends on your current employment. Job changes impact your ability to consolidate retirement funds from multiple employers.

Risk Tolerance – This shapes whether you invest conservatively or aggressively within accounts. Consider your emotional ability to weather market declines without taking more risk than you can withstand.

Estate Planning Goals – Certain accounts offer preferential access for heirs and opportunities to reduce taxation. Key options include inherited IRAs, trusts, and creative asset titling.

Other Financial Goals – Saving for major purchases like a house or college tuition impacts available funds to invest and may shift priority towards more liquid non-retirement savings.

Now let’s explore the popular workplace retirement plans many Americans rely on.

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Employer-Sponsored Retirement Accounts

For most workers, participating in an employer-provided retirement plan is the easiest and often most tax-advantageous way to invest for the future. Options like 401(k)s allow you to automatically contribute from each paycheck while shielding some income from taxes until retirement.

The most common plans are:

401(k) Plans – Offered by for-profit companies across all industries and sizes. The 2024 elective deferral limit is $23,000, or $30,500 for those 50+. Many employers match 3-6% of pay.

403(b) Plans – Offered to non-profit organizations like hospitals, universities, religious groups. Same deferral limits as 401ks. Limited employer matching is common.

457(b) Plans – Primarily offered by state and local governments. 2024 elective deferral limit is $23,000, or $30,500 for those 50+. Few contribute employer matches.

Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) – Special 401k-style plan for federal civil service employees. Very low administrative fees and matches and matches on up to 5% of salary contributed.

The key advantage of these employer plans is their simplicity and automatic nature. Contributions come right off your paycheck. You aren’t responsible for manually contributing to a separate IRA or individual account. Plus, many employers match a portion of your contributions, effectively giving you free retirement money. Be sure to contribute enough to qualify for full available matching funds.

Core Benefits of Workplace Retirement Plans

While specific features can vary, most share these core advantages:

Tax Deferred Savings & Growth – Contributions come out pre-tax, lowering current year taxable income. Investment earnings grow tax-free each year, boosting compounded returns. Taxes apply on distributions in retirement.

Convenience – Easy enrollment and automatic contributions make it effortless to save. The employer handles opening the account, managing the investments, and paperwork.

Portability - You can roll over funds from one employer's plan to another when you change jobs. This preserves tax-deferred status while consolidating retirement assets.

Creditor Protection – Assets held in these plans enjoy protection from bankruptcy. This provides peace of mind that your nest egg is shielded from lawsuits or creditors.

Potential Employer Match – Employer matches between 3%-6% of an employee's salary is common. Maximize matches through salary deferrals.

For those 50 and older, “catch up” provisions allow an extra $7,500 beyond normal contribution limits. If behind on saving, take full advantage with catch up contributions.

Next, let’s review key limitations common to employer retirement plans that are useful to understand upfront:

Limitations and Downsides of Workplace Retirement Accounts

While employer plans simplify investing through payroll deductions, this convenience has some tradeoffs:

Limited Investment Options – The employer pre-selects the fund choices available. Typically 8-15 mutual fund or index fund offerings with little ability to invest beyond those.

Illiquidity and Early Withdrawal Penalties – Significant taxes and penalties apply if tapping funds before age 59 1⁄2 with certain exceptions for disability, medical expenses, or separation from service. Access flexibility is lower compared to non-retirement investment accounts.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) – Once you turn age 73 or 75 (depending on your year of birth), the IRS mandates that you start withdrawing minimum amounts each year from pre-tax accounts like traditional 401ks and IRAs. These RMDs generate taxable income which could negatively impact your tax rate in retirement.

Complex Rollover Logistics – Consolidating old 401k funds from prior employers to simplify oversight can be tedious and can require calls to custodians with lengthy hold times.

Termination Access Deadlines – After leaving a job, your ability to contribute to that company’s retirement plan ends. You typically must complete rollovers within 60-90 days to avoid taxes or penalties on existing balances.

While these cautions are worth noting, contributing to available employer plans should still be your first investing priority. The good news is that IRAs provide an outlet to retain many benefits if you change jobs or want more flexibility.

Supplemental Retirement Savings Vehicles – IRAs

In conjunction with workplace plans, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are the next bucket where most Americans accumulate additional retirement savings in a tax-advantaged manner.

You can open an IRA completely independently without relying on an employer. This gives you full control and portability over future savings regardless of job changes. Unlike former employers' 401ks which potentially end access at termination, IRAs stay with you for life.

The two primary types are Traditional and Roth IRAs:

Traditional IRAs – You contribute pre-tax dollars so contributions may be tax deductible. Account balances grow tax-deferred and withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.

Roth IRAs – You contribute post-tax dollars with no upfront deduction. Investment earnings and qualified distributions are completely tax-free. Flexibility to withdraw contributions anytime tax and penalty-free.

The 2024 annual contribution limit across all IRAs is $7,000 plus a $1,000 catch up contribution for those 50 and older. This is separate from and in addition to employer plan deferral allowances.

Spousal IRAs also allow contributing to a non-working spouse's account although income limits determine deductibility.

While IRAs handle taxes on contributions and withdrawals differently than workplace accounts, they share these core advantages:

Tax Incentives – Either upfront deductions or tax-free growth and withdrawals provide savings compared to normal investment accounts. These compounded benefits over decades result in significantly higher total returns.

Investment Flexibility - Ability to select from an unlimited universe of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and other securities aligned with your goals and risk tolerance. This contrasts with the limited pre-selected employer plan investment options.

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Key IRA Rules and Operational Considerations

Beyond taxes which I’ll cover more below, IRAs have fewer restrictions than employer-sponsored plans:

No Early Withdrawal Penalties on Contributions for Roth IRAs – You can withdraw your original Roth IRA contributions anytime with no penalties or taxes. Earnings face penalties if accessed prior to age 59 1⁄2 outside certain exemptions..

No Mandatory Minimum Distributions for Roth IRAs – There are no required minimum distributions for Roth IRAs.

Tax Reporting Ease – Deductions clearly flow through on standard tax returns. Basis tracking for Roth withdrawals and conversions is straightforward on Form 8606.

Investment Consolidation – Can transfer old 401ks to rollover IRAs to consolidate and make your financial life less scattered.

While IRAs confer substantial advantages, 401ks do still boast some remaining key benefits covered next:

Relative IRA Downsides to Employer Retirement Plans

The automatic convenience and company subsidies of employer plans are hard for IRAs to match:

Employer Matching – Missing out on 50-100% instant returns from matches is extremely hard to justify if available.

No Loan Feature – Workplace plans often allow  you to borrow a portion of your balance which IRAs prohibit.

Lower Contribution Limits – $7,000 IRA limit + $1,000 catch up is far below $23,000 employer plan limits + $7,500 catch up for those 50 and older.

Income Limits –The ability to deduct traditional IRA contributions from your taxable income and the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA are subject to income limits.

Ideally you would maximize both available workplace plans and supplemental IRAs in tandem based on your income. Together they serve low and high level savers alike to amass substantial tax-advantaged wealth.

Next, we’ll tackle the complex question many wrestle with when deciding account priorities – Roth vs. Traditional savings?

Roth vs. Traditional Account Decisions

Should retirement contributions go into Traditional pre-tax accounts or Roth post-tax accounts? This boils down to the key tradeoff – would you rather pay taxes now or later in retirement?

Traditional Pre-Tax Benefits:

  • Contributions are potentially tax deductible, lowering your current year taxable income
  • Funds grow tax-deferred for decades, boosting compounded returns
  • Pay income taxes on withdrawals later in retirement

Roth After-Tax Benefits:

  • Contributions come from income already taxed so no deduction
  • Growth and qualified distributions entirely tax-free
  • Avoid uncertainty over future tax rates

Determining the better option depends heavily on your personal financial situation. Here is one framework for deciding:

Consider if your tax bracket will be higher or lower in retirement compared to now. Will rising federal deficits eventually push rates higher?. In that case Roth contributions may carry more benefit.

However if you expect to maintain income near peak earning years in retirement, keeping taxable income in roughly the same bracket over time, deductible Traditional contributions save more money on the front end.

Of course predicting future policy changes decades down the road is extremely complex with no crystal ball. Hedging bets across both account types provides balanced tax diversification and flexibility.

Roth IRAs also supply greater access since you can always withdraw contributions with no tax or penalty. Just earnings face restrictions until age 59 1⁄2 for qualified distributions.

Additionally, both Roths IRAs and Roth employer plans have no lifetime required minimum distributions. More assets can stay invested, compounding tax-free to fund your withdrawal needs and legacy wishes rather than being slowly depleted by mandatory IRA withdrawals starting in your 70s.

Inherited Roth money also skips income taxes for your heirs. This can powerfully reduce erosion of generational wealth transfers.

The ideal strategy utilizes both Roth and Traditional savings segmented to fill retirement income gaps while minimizing lifetime taxes under current law. Personal factors shaping your ideal account mix include:

  • Current vs projected future tax rates
  • Retirement spending needs
  • Time until retirement to benefit from tax deferral
  • Estate planning priorities
  • Risk tolerance if converting Traditional funds to Roth

Everyone’s situation is unique, so I recommend discussing specifics with a financial advisor rather than relying on simple rules of thumb.

Self-Employed Retirement Account Options

Thus far we’ve focused on IRAs and formal employer-sponsored plans. But Americans includes 38 million self-employed individuals – entrepreneurs, contractors, gig workers, freelancers, and small business owners – with additional retirement accounts tailored to their situations.

Popular options include:

Solo 401k Plans

  • Also called individual or one-participant 401k accounts
  • Allows employee pre-tax salary deferral PLUS employer profit sharing contribution
  • Up to $69,000 total contributions in 2024. If you are 50 or over you can contribute up to $73,500 in 2024.

Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRAs

  • Streamlined IRA plan with lower administrative paperwork
  • 2024 limits lesser of $69,000 or 25% of compensation
  • Mandatory contributions formulas require making similar % contributions to all eligible employees

Savings Incentive Match Plan (SIMPLE) IRAs

  • Designed for small employers with under 100 workers
  • Allows employee pre-tax salary deferral up to $16,000 or $19,500 for those over 50
  • Some form of matching from the employer is always required.

Choosing between retirement plans for side hustle income or small business owners depends partly on your profit levels but also legal complexity you are willing to establish.

Solo 401ks confer nearly double the deferrals but mandate meticulous annual administration like non-discrimination testing. SIMPLEs limit total tax-advantaged contributions more but are simpler to manage.

I suggest discussing specifics with both a financial advisor and tax professional to clarify the optimal approach before committing to a particular path.

Rollover and Consolidated IRAs

Changing employers across a career span means you likely have retirement plan balances scattered across multiple accounts. Combining these into one place vastly simplifies maintaining proper oversight.

These bundled plans are called Rollover or Consolidated IRAs because you “roll over” then “consolidate” other balance sources including:

  • Old 401k, 403b, pension, and some 457 workplace plan balances
  • Profit sharing plans if you previously held business ownership

The key benefit of Rollover IRAs is easily managing an otherwise fragmented retirement investment portfolio to align with your total needs and risk profile in one place.

You preserve the tax-advantaged status of old accounts by directly transferring to avoid withdrawal penalties.

Some additional advantages over maintaining multiple workplace plans or IRAs:

  • Simpler for rebalancing and monitoring investments holistically
  • May open up wider investment choices unavailable in old plans
  • Consolidates multiple annual tax reporting forms
  • Easier coordination with outside assets for total income planning

If you lack an employer plan, Rollover IRAs can still accept transfers from previous company accounts.

Overall these accounts provide helpful flexibility whether currently employed or in retirement.

When to Consider Taxable Investment Accounts

While not specifically intended for retirement savings, standard taxable investment accounts can supplement your dedicated retirement funds once you maximize annual contributions.


  • No contribution limits - Invest as much as you have available each year
  • Broader investment options - Access to any individual stocks, ETFs, etc.
  • Higher Liquidity - Liquidity for withdrawals without early penalties


  • No tax advantage on contributions
  • Less asset protection from creditors

Balancing retirement, short-term goal, and taxable investment buckets to align with your total financial picture takes coordination. But the flexibility can be useful, especially later in life.

Ideal Accounts By Life Stage

As a general guideline tailored to retirement, here are smart accounts to consider at different ages:

In your 20s - Open a Roth IRA. Contribute to any workplace plans, prioritizing ones with an employer match.

In your 30s - Continue maxing employer plans and IRAs. Research rollovers as you switch jobs.

In your 40s -  Determine ideal pre-tax vs. Roth savings mix based on projected retirement tax rates and income needs.

In your 50s - Make catch-up contributions. Perform rollovers and consolidate accounts.

In your 60s - Shift portfolio to retirement-focused investments. Withdraw strategically based on income requirements and tax implications.

This is just a broad overview. The optimal savings approach aligns with your unique situation. A financial advisor can help craft a personalized plan.

Frequently Asked Roth vs. Traditional Account Questions

If I have a 401k, should I open a Roth IRA too?

Yes, IRAs and employer plans have separate contribution limits, so it is smart to maximize both. The Roth IRA complements your pre-tax 401k money, diversifying future tax scenarios. Just beware the income phaseout limits that restrict high earners from directly funding Roth accounts.

What if I have old 401k balances at former employers? 

This is a perfect scenario to utilize Rollover or Consolidated IRAs. Combine multiple old workplace plan balances under one IRA wrapper without negative tax consequences. Simplifies oversight of investments so everything aligns with your long-term vision in one place. 

Can I have multiple Traditional and Roth IRAs open?

Yes, you may open different Traditional and Roth IRAs across providers. However, combined annual contributions to all IRAs cannot exceed universal limits - $7,000 or $8,000 including catch up contributions if over age 50. While legal, usually no advantage to opening more than one Roth and one Traditional IRA since this needlessly complicates tracking.

Final Thoughts

Saving enough for a satisfying retirement requires careful planning using the right savings vehicles over your working years. This guide reviewed popular account types to equip you with knowledge on available options.

The ideal choices for your situation depend heavily on personal factors like income levels now and in the future, career path, investment risk preferences, estate planning considerations, and more.

Hopefully you now feel empowered to make more informed investing decisions when it comes to funding your retirement dreams. Remember to revisit strategies over time adjusting to life changes. Connecting with a professional financial advisor can provide guidance customized to your exact circumstances and goals.

Whether retirement feels far away or is quickly approaching, the actions you take today – choosing the right savings vehicles and maximizing contributions – will play a huge role in determining your financial freedom and lifestyle in your later non-working years.

👉 If you would like to get a FREE retirement assessment, click the link to schedule your 20-minute call to start the retirement assessment process.

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